China’s Silent Spring

It would be easy to write a post about the difference between Malaysia and China and point to the joys of multiculturalism and  democracy. However it wasn’t these things that jumped out most at me during my travels, instead it was the simple joy of being reminded of the abundance of life outside of the human race.

Even though Malaysian Borneo is home to orangutans, sea turtles, and hosts of other intriguing creatures, it was the little birds that could be heard in every city that made me saddest to leave. China’s urban areas have stray cats and dogs, rats, and surprisingly large cockroaches, but very few birds (outside of the ones old men bring to the parks in cages).

Even though my apartment exits onto a small wooded lot, I am more frequently awoken by the warbling of aspiring opera singers and fireworks than by our feathered friends. In Nanjing birds are so rare, that the sighting of a magpie is considered a sign of good luck. I learned of this last Spring when one landed near my office window and immediately drew a crowd.

The year before that, when I was living in Chengdu, I started noticing just how precious little wildlife survived China’s move toward modernization (in rural Guangxi we did have a few more birds, but still so few that you noticed each one). This was on my mind as I began a three-day cruise through the Three Gorges. In that whole time, I counted no more than 10 birds along one of China’s most important rivers.

This memory came back to me as I stood on a street at dusk in Malaysia and saw that the telephone wires were sagging under the weight of all the tiny birds (my wife was more reminded of a certain Hitchcock film). For the rest of the trip I bothered my traveling companions with comments about how great it was to hear birds singing and how much I preferred that to the perpetual honking of car horns in China.

It was a solemn reminder of the fact that China’s ecological devastation effects far more than just the health of its people and goes beyond polluting factories.

The sparrows I had seen throughout Malaysia had been virtually exterminated in China as the result of one of the Party’s misguided campaigns. The aptly named “Kill a Sparrow Campaign” (消灭麻雀运动 xiaomie maque yundong) encouraged peasants to beat pots and pans until the sparrows died of exhaustion. This was part of a larger effort to rid China of traditional pests.

The sparrows were targeted because it was thought that they were eating the crops, but in fact they were eating the insects, this further exacerbated the great famine that killed nearly 45 million Chinese. The famine also lead to a desperate search for food of any kind which effected many other species.

These campaigns also targeted the South China tiger, which had a population of over 4,000 in the 1950’s. By the 1982 there were fewer than 200 left, and at present they are thought to be extinct in the wild, with about 50 surviving in captivity (which are already showing effects of inbreeding). The arguments made for the tiger being extinct in the wild highlight the fact that its traditional range has been shrunk by urbanization and that little prey inhabits that area.

There are starting to be conservation efforts in China to reintroduce tigers, pandas, and even dolphins (assuming they can catch a pair and successfully mate them, this creature is likely already extinct due to increased traffic along the Yangtze and the Three Gorges Dam), but it may already be too little too late for the wild populations.

However, as China moves to protect threatened creatures at home, as long as it doesn’t interfere too much with development, Chinese tastes for the exotic are threatening wildlife abroad. Just today the People’s Daily reported a raid on ivory traders in Guangxi that resulted in the confiscation of over 700 elephant tusks (meaning at the very least 350 were killed).

Wealthy Chinese around the world are also responsible for the slaughter of over 73 million sharks per year with their consumption of shark fin soup. This nutritionally lacking “delicacy” is not procured solely by Chinese fishermen (although customers are overwhelmingly Chinese), and international hotel chains have taken advantage of this deplorable money maker. The Howard Johnson in Shanghai reportedly denied one man’s request to have it taken off the menu at his wedding reception, insisting that it’s what the guests would expect.

Between past misguided policies, an industrial boom that has soiled fragile habitats, and the  search for dishes made from exotic creatures, China has devastated its animal populations. Hopefully dramatic actions will be taken to improve the protection of what is left, and educate China’s youth on the values of conservation and stewardship.

Take action: You can contact Wyndham Worldwide to call for them to stop serving shark fin soup, I have and am still waiting for a reply. When/if I receive one I will post it on the site.

Lesson Ideas: For all you English teachers, I wanted to link to a pdf of The Lorax (with pics / without pics) as well as a few lesson plans for various ages/levels (here and here). It would also be interesting to use The Truax, which was created by a wood flooring company, to discuss how our values can be effected by corporate interests. If you try any of these in class, please share your experiences below.

13 responses to “China’s Silent Spring”

  1. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    A sad post, Tom, which reminds me of why I could never live in China, although I love visiting my wonderful Chinese friends there. A commenter recently stated that you can tell how civilised a country is by the state of it’s public bathrooms (toilets). I think how a country treats animals is also very informative. Last time I was in BJ (2010) there were too many stray dogs running around scared for me to feel comfortable. The British food writer Fuschia Dunlop spent many years in Chengdu. In her book “Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper – A sweet-sour memoir of eating in China”, she points out that animal in Chinese is dong wu 动物 meaning ‘moving thing’ whereas in English, as in most European languages, the words for the living things we eat are mostly derived from the Latin ‘anima’, which means air, breath, life. We are human animals. It is an interesting linguistic point which I offer for the more intellectual commenters to demolish at will. I can recommend Fuschia’s book as a fascinating account of one laowai’s long term love affair with Chinese food and struggle with cross cultural methods of obtaining and cooking it.

  2. […] here: China's Silent Spring | Seeing Red in China /* Tags: chin, china, difference, joys, jumped-out-most, malay, malaysia, out-most, […]

  3. James says:

    Sparrows do eat millet and sorghum, (small grains in a spray-like seed head, and relished by small birds) are traditional crops in Northern China, before the widespread introduction of wheat and corn. Millet and sorghum are more drought and cold resistant than wheat or corn, and are still grown, not only for distillation.

    I had millet and yogurt for breakfast many times in Inner Mongolia.

    • Tom says:

      Sparrows though also contribute greatly to controlling insect populations, especially locusts which are far more destructive to crops. On the balance, there is probably greater grain output with birds than without.

  4. Lorin Yochim says:

    Speaking of Silent Spring, Tom, it would be interesting to know if there is any book with such a status in Chinese. Have you heard of anything? Anyone else?

  5. Anonymous says:

    I met an American guy during the Beijing Olympics who was a big-time birdwatcher and he said birding outings in the mountains near Beijing were far more rewarding than you’d think with the pollution. He had a great field guide to Chinese birds.

  6. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  7. Isn’t seeing a magpie considered good luck in most Western countries as well? Hence the rhyme “one for sorrow, two for joy…” etc.

    • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

      East Asia Student: A single magpie seen near the window of a house is believed to herald an impending death in Scotland. My late Scottish mother in law extended this belief to include all single members of the crow family seen near the house. Magpies were rare in the north of Scotland when she was young but they have since spread to this area and are generally disliked. A single magpie is seen as bad luck throughout Britain but more than one is OK:- hence “one for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy” rhyme.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I think I’m in trouble, Meryl. There are literally hundreds of magpies in my neighbourhood prompting letters to the editor. They shadow my dog when we go for walks. Yesterday, there was a squadron of them dipping and diving outside my office window on campus.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Like all members of the corvus family, magpies are highly intelligent, sociable birds. Better watch out, Lorin. Maybe they know something you don’t know!

  9. Chopstik says:


    I received the following from Wyndham as it regards shark fin soup. Thought it might be of interest:

    Dear [Chopstik],

    Thank you for contacting the Wyndham Hotel Group and sharing your opinion with us. We certainly appreciate you taking the time to bring this matter to our attention.

    As each facility is independently owned and operated, we do not have any type of affiliation with the restaurant in question. Therefore we would encourage you to direct any inquiries or comments you may have to the management of the restaurant directly.

    Again, we want to extend our apologies for this situation and thank you for bringing this to our attention.

    My original comment is below:

    I would like to ask that you please remove shark fin soup from your menus. While this may be a complaint you hear from both vegetarians and PETA supporters, I want to tell you that I am neither but would still ask that you consider this. There is little nutritional value to it but it is causing havoc to shark species for a “delicacy”. Thank you for your consideration.

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